Today is Mother’s Day in the U.S. and Canada. According to Wikipedia, this holiday is “a modern celebration honoring one's own mother, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.” This is a time when many children send cards and flowers showing their appreciation to their mothers. While this holiday is modern in origins, we do find some examples of mothers becoming angry when their children do not write to them or show proper acknowledgment.
One case in particular comes to mind. In a first-century Greek papyrus letter known as P.Berenike 2.129, found in a Roman dump in Egypt, a mother named Hikane writes to her son Isidoros scolding him for not writing to her. Here is the opening of Hikane's letter:
“[Hikane] to Isidoros [her son, greetings. First of all] I thought it necessary, since the packet boat was putting out to sea, to write . . . me. I am in Berenike. I wrote you a letter [?but did not receive a] letter. Was it for this that I carried you for ten months and nursed you for three years, so that you would be incapable of remembering me by letter? And similarly you dimissed me though the Oasites . . . not I you. But I left your brothers in Arabia . . . so that . . Egypt I might see your face and . . . breath. I only ask and beg and adjure you by the one whom you . . . and by the memory of the one who begot you, to sail away if you are well.”
The papyrus is fragmentary, but Hikane’s frustration is clear. Through rhetorical coloring, she reminds Isidoros that she carried him in her womb for ten months and nursed him for three years. So, what is the moral of this story? Maybe it is that you should write to your mothers. Otherwise, you could receive a letter like Hikane's. Or worse: your mom takes her anger to Facebook!
Letter writers in the ancient world who chose papyrus as their written medium could use a new sheet of papyrus cut from a roll, or an already-inscribed papyrus. In many cases, when the recipient of a letter wished to respond to the sender, he/she would turn the letter over and write (or have a scribe write) his/her response on the back. In very rare cases, writers would wash the text off of a previously inscribed papyrus surface and then compose their letter. In these cases, it probably means that the respondent actually had no other material at his/her disposal. In other words, it was out of necessity that some papyri were re-used for inscription. We find a case of this detailed in one fourth century C.E. papyrus (P.Abinn. 21): "To my Lord and Father Abinnaeus, Alupios. Since I could not find at the moment a clean sheet of papyrus (χαρτίον καθαρὸν), I have written on this (i.e., the back of another letter)." Sometimes, blank papyrus sheets were actually sent directly to the correspondents. In one papyrus letter dated to the reign of Augustus (P.Wash.Univ. 2.106), Dionysia chastises her brother for not sending her a sheet of unwritten papyrus: "You did not send me word or remembrance or a sheet of unwritten papyrus (κόλλημα ἀγράφου). So write to me a letter and send it." And in another letter dated to the third century C.E. (P.Flor. 3.367), the letter writer complains that his would-be correspondent did not use the "letter-writing papyri" he sent him: "For I wrote to you many times and even sent letter-writing papyri (χάρτας ἐπιστολικο[ὺς) so that you would be supplied to write to me." Fresh, blank papyrus was, after all, not free, so it is understandable why this particular writer was frustrated. These sheets probably cost him good money. I suppose availability of new or "clean" papyrus also depended on one's location in relation to vendors, markets, and manufacturers of papyrus. Surely not everyone kept full papyrus rolls in their dwelling for future correspondence (though this is possible for the more well-to-do; on one request for papyrus rolls, see here, at bottom). It has often been stated that papyri could not be bought as individual sheets, but I hasten to agree with Bagnall and Cribiore's conviction that "people could find on the market papyrus stationary and could purchase individual pieces, whether whole sheets or not, and not only rolls" (Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BCE – AD 800 [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006], 36).
So, next time you go to grab that sticky note, be reminded that the ancients did not have such a luxury!
I am currently editing a small Greek papyrus that refers to a boat in the harbor of a monastery, which belongs to a certain Victor. Since transportation in Egypt was frequently done by boat along the Nile, it is no surprise that we find many references to boats in the papyri. Boats were most often owned by social elites, such as officials, aristocrats, and wealthy businessmen. What is surprising (at least to me anyway) is that several papyri actually mention boats that were owned by monasteries, bishops, and monks. From two related fourth century papyri (P.Col. 7.160 and 161), we learn that a bishop by the name of Hierapollon owned four boats. In P.Harr. 1.94 (fourth century), we learn that a Christian priest named Apollonius, son of a bishop named Dionysus, was the owner of a boat. P.Oxy. 34.2729, a fourth century Christian letter, mentions the boat of Thodoros the bishop. These boats were most likely the private property of well-to-do Christian clergy or their churches/monasteries. Jean Gascou has argued that monasteries made their boats available to the service of the state. Certainly, from the documentary record, we can see that some monastic communities were holders of much property and other kinds of assets. Perhaps some monks retained portions of their pre-monastic wealth. Some of these possessions were used to generate income and establish monastic estates. We learn of the leasing of part of a water wheel (P.Oxy. 16.1900), a boat anchor (SB 8.9683), and land (P.Ross.Georg. 3.48). Anyway, monastic life didn’t always mean empty, unadorned, and dark cells. Some monastic circles were participating in the lively economy of Byzantine Egypt just like everyone else. And some apparently had boats!
Prof. Stephen J. Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. He specializes in the history of ancient and medieval Christianity, with a special focus on the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
For the last ten years, from 2006 to 2015, the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project (YMAP) has been engaged in surveys, excavations, and archaeological analysis at late ancient and early medieval Egyptian monastic sites.
YMAP-North: Monastic Archaeology in Lower Egypt
In 2006, the YMAP team conducted a geophysical survey at the site of Kellia-Pherme in the Delta region, and we also initiated surveys and excavations at the Monastery of John the Little in Wādī al-Naṭrūn (ancient Scetis). Continuing from 2006 to 2012, excavations at John the Little focused on a monastic midden (i.e. trash deposit) and an early medieval mud-brick monastic residence.
The excavated residence at John the Little is organized around a central courtryard and contains kitchen installations, a latrine, and a room (perhaps an oratory) with an extensive program of wall writings (dipinti) and figural paintings, including images of martyrs and monks, and an apocalyptic scene of Christ depicted as a horned Lamb of God.
Ceramic evidence has shown that the building was occupied until around the end of the ninth century CE. Two of the surviving wall writings are accompanied by tenth-century dates, evidence that raises the possibility that the building functioned as a place of gathering and visitation after it no longer functioned as a fulltime residence.
Analysis of archaeobotanical and archaeozoological data promises to shed light on monastic diet and practices related to local agriculture and animal husbandry. Documentation of this work continues, with a major collaborative volume currently in preparation.
YMAP-South: Monastic Archaeology in Upper Egypt
In addition to this work in northern Egypt, in 2008 the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project also assumed responsibility for archaeological documentation and conservation at the White Monastery near Sohag in southern Egypt. There, we have focused our attention on archaeological remains related to water distribution and food production and on a tomb chapel related to the fifth-century head of the monastery, Shenoute of Atripe.
Another important focus of our work has been on the architectural history of the monumental monastic church built by Shenoute in the fifth century. In the church, excavations conducted in 2011 unexpectedly also led to the discovery of hundreds of manuscript fragments, surviving traces of the monastery’s formerly vast library collection. Photographs of these fragments have since been made available for study online.
In February and March 2015, our work in the church included two urgent conservation initiatives. First, an Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF) Grant from the American Research Center in Egypt helped support work to stabilize two sections of the church walls that were in danger of collapse. A three-dimensional test scan of the church’s north wall was also conducted to gauge patterns of deformation.
Second, the discovery of a partially detached section of painted plaster in the church sanctuary led to another emergency intervention dedicated to the consolidation and conservation of a severely threatened early medieval wall painting of the Virgin and Child.
Ongoing and Future Work
Ongoing work in Lower Egypt includes a new project to catalogue Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic manuscripts in the Monastery of the Syrians, one of the medieval monastic foundations in Wādī al-Naṭrūn that has remained active to the present day. The library collection contains almost a thousand manuscripts. Cataloguing work began in December 2013, and plans for digitizing the massive collection are currently under discussion. With an eye toward future work in Upper Egypt, YMAP has recently entered into collaborative arrangement with a German archaeological mission from Universität Tübingen to document Coptic-era remains at ancient Atripe, the site of the women’s monastery in Shenoute’s federation, located only about three kilometers south of the White Monastery. The plan is to begin excavations in February-March 2016.
Project Leadership and Support
The Yale Monastic Project was founded by Professor Stephen J. Davis (Yale University) who has served as its executive director since its inception in 2006. Professor Darlene Brooks Hedstrom (Wittenberg University) and Dr. Gillian Pyke (Yale University) have served as the project’s archaeological field directors. YMAP receives generous annual support from the Simpson Endowment for Egyptology and the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt, and the project has benefited from its longstanding cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), as well as the ecclesiastical and monastic leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church.